Greenwich – Where East meets West.

As one of the boroughs that make up the Docklands area, Greenwich means a lot of things to a lot of different people. However, what makes it truly special is that it’s known throughout the world without many even realising it, most likely as a Greenwich Mean Time, but how exactly did the borough become a by-word for time and space?

Well, the main landmark we can literally point to is the Royal Observatory. It was designed by acclaimed architect Sir Christopher Wren after it was commissioned by King Charles II in 1675 and John Flamsteed moved in less than a year later on 10th July 1676 with his two servants to begin his observations. On the way to becoming the source of prime meridian of the world (more on that in a bit), the observatory was used to plot all the stars in the northern and southern hemispheres, became the first public time signal in the country (as Big Ben hadn’t been built yet) and made huge strides to develop the most precise clocks of the period.

Greenwich became the Prime Meridan – i.e. the point where longitude is 0° and divides the eastern and western hemispheres, was chosen to the Prime Meridian of the World in 1884. It was decided in a meeting in Washington DC, named the International Meridian Conference. Since the Royal Observatory had some of the most accurate clocks, astronomer John Flamsteed set them to local time – Greenwich Mean Time. It was calculated to be the mean or the average time it took for the Sun the cross the meridian at Greenwich. In fact, all towns kept its own local time defined by the Sun.

As industry developed, particularly railway and transport links, it became apparent that a single standard time to measure when the day would begin and end, how long an hour is etc would be required to make timetables less confusing. Railway companies started to introduce Greenwich Mean Time and later became known as Railway Time. By around 1850, almost all public clocks were set to Greenwich Mean Time until it was officially standardised in 1880. So, how did it grow to become the international standard then?

Well to answer that, we have to go back to Greenwich’s recognition as the Prime Meridan of the world. There were two reasons why it was given this distinction. The first is that the US had already chosen Greenwich as the basis for its own national time zone system. The second was that in the late 19th century, 72% of the world’s commerce depended on sea-charts which used Greenwich as the Prime Meridian. So since it was decided that it would benefit the majority of people, it was adopted as the international standard. We still use it today throughout Autumn and Winter.

So there you have it! How Greenwich became associated with time and space thanks to its iconic observatory that helped change the way we know time as we know it.


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